Healing the Wounded Father – The Contemporary Fathering Crisis
The Wounded Father
In his book Finding Our Fathers, psychologist Samuel Osherson tells about a forty-two-year-old doctor who came to him with a problem. His younger brother’s wedding had brought the entire family, including their divorced parents, together in St. Louis. The physician spent most of the time with his mother to the neglect of his father who seemed isolated and distant. As the weekend ended, his father gave him a ride back to the airport. Osherson reports that his client sobbed as he reported how they traveled in silence; a father and son with nothing to say to each other. The doctor said, “I was scared of what he thought about me. But what difference does it make? It does no good to try to talk to my father.” (Osherson, 1)
The doctor is not alone in his feelings. Hosts of men have awkward and damaged relationships with their own fathers which not only cloud their past, but also shadow the present. Osherson points out that the doctor’s distance from his own father damaged his internal image of what it means to be a father. He calls that damaged image “the wounded father” (Osherson, 9).
Yet the wounded father develops not simply because a father and son don’t get along, but rather today’s wounded father is a product of a society that has degraded fatherhood and put men at odds with their children.
The Disposable Parent
Many of today’s men, like Osherson’s doctor, have grown up in a culture that has shown little support for the role of their father. Fathers have become, in the words of William Haddad and Mel Roman, “the disposable parent” (Haddad and Roman, 16-21). The industrial revolution yanked the men out of their homes and defined a father solely as a wage earner. The sexual upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s which questioned whether one man needed to stay with one woman provided many men with an exit from the parenting process (Miller. 112-13)
Modern psychology inherited a legacy from Sigmund Freud saying that many emotional problems originate under paternal authoritarianism (Terrien, 63). University of Illinois psychology professor Ross D. Parke added, “Psychology has a long history of ignoring fathers. . . . We didn’t just forget fathers by accident; we ignored them on purpose because of our assumptions that they were less important than mothers in influencing the developing child” (Parke, 4).
Notions like anthropologist Margaret Mead’s widely quoted statement, “Fathers are a biological necessity but a social accident” push men further away from their offspring. Feminist Rosemary Ruether argued against male dominance (Ruether, 74-75). In attacking men as a source of oppression, feminists further contributed to the confusion over the nature of a father.
Even popular culture with television’s prejudice-filled, anger-driven Archie Bunker, Dean Young’s inept and party crazy Dagwood Bumstead, and Sylvester Stallone’s mumbling, half-crazed Rambo character suggest that little good can come from men.
A Generation of Wounded Images
So a generation has grown up in a culture that did not support our fathers. My father was not permitted in the delivery room when I was born. My father was not allowed to hold his firstborn son, but was forced to look at me through a window. When my father picked up a parenting magazine he found it addressed to mothers.
Current fathers draw on a troubled legacy. Our fathers lived in a time when fathers were thought to be unimportant. Our fathers were taught by a female-dominated educational system where children had room mothers, but never room fathers. Our fathers had fathers who were discouraged from talking on a deep level. We had fathers who were profoundly affected by a culture deeply cynical about their position as parents.
As a result, I am part of a generation that feels considerable anxiety about being a father. The voices that urge me to be a faithful parent to my sons clamor to be heard over the internal messages that it doesn’t matter.
Search for a New Image
But being a father is important. Despite all the past baggage that lingers into the present through the wounded images we carry inside that say that dads don’t matter, being the right kind of father may be the most important thing a man ever does.
The notion that fathers are unimportant finds flat contradiction in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus didn’t lecture a great deal on the family, but he applied the father-son imagery to the most intimate relationship he had.
Jesus could have drawn on a large number of names and descriptions of God. Yet the one that he uses almost exclusively is Father. No one in Scripture surpasses Jesus in calling God Father. By calling God Father, Jesus raised fathering to fundamental significance.
He used the notion of father with the highest regard. The father-son link was important to him. He relied on it. He often spoke of the unity and love relationship that they enjoyed. The Gospels record that he often talked with God his Father.
When life became most unbearable, it was to this father that he called, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Lk 22:42). On the cross Jesus invoked his father twice: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
Even casual readers of Jesus’ story notice how important the Father was to Jesus. Jesus, unlike us, was not troubled by a tainted image of fatherhood. By exposure to Jesus, our own wounded images of fathers can be healed by watching a perfect father minister to his children.
The Nurturing Father
The most crucial statement by Jesus on fathering is Luke 6:23, where Jesus underlined not only the importance of his heavenly parent, but also his most fundamental quality. Jesus said, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Throughout the Old Testament the people were told to “Be holy just as God is holy.” Jesus personalized God by calling him Father, and then pointed to his fundamental quality: mercy.
Jesus called him Father, not because he was a tyrant, not because he was master, not because he threw his weight around, but he used the name Father because of his mercy. He used father to convey the tenderness, the caring, the compassion, and the nurture of God.
Jesus drew on the Old Testament for this image of God. Perhaps he recalled God’s desperate plea, “When Israel was a child, I love him, and out of Egypt I called my son. . . I led them with compassion, with the bonds of love” (Hos. 11:1, 4). Surely Jesus remembered God’s words, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember his still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (Jer. 31:20).
In a society where “daddy” has become mother’s live-in boyfriend, where “father” has been a source of irritation and anger, and where men are “wounded fathers,” these texts give new importance to the male parent and offer deeper meaning to fathering.
Steps Toward Healing the Wounds
In light of these texts, what can heirs of the wounded father image do to overcome that legacy? Begin with these three suggestions:
1—Be a present father. Some fathers desert their families. God didn’t. As Father, he never deserted his people. Some fathers become preoccupied with careers or other issues. God didn’t. As Father, he never placed anything above his people.
Memphis physician Kenyon Rainer published his autobiographical story of the demanding life of a surgeon entitled First Do No Harm. He tells that after his wife and kids left him, he arrived home one night to read the mail. He opened a letter from his daughter Laura. It said, “Dear Daddy, I miss you. I went swimming today. I can jump off the high board now. Please come soon. I love you. Laura.”
Rainer knew he couldn’t make the trip, but he decided to write to his little girl. He found a pen and some paper and had written “My dearest Laura” when the phone rang. It was the emergency room nurse calling. Rainer makes it clear the unfinished letter was not the exception, but the rule.
He had children, but he never was a father.
A few years ago before I had children, I was with a friend at a major league baseball game. It was Children’s Day. The stadium was packed. We had free tickets just beyond the third base dugout. The right-hander at bat hit a foul drive toward our section. We all stood, hoping to catch the ball, but it landed several rows behind us. As the ball shot by, I could see it hit an eight-year-old boy in the face. His mouth started to bleed. Before anybody moved to help, his father picked him up and left immediately for the First Aid booth.
I felt sorry for the little guy. But I was sure glad he had a daddy.
Be a present father.
2—Be an active father. God was. He actively worked in the nation of Israel. Jesus appealed to his Father and received immediate response.
James Muilenburg, the well-known Old Testament scholar, wrote about the wonders of divine fatherhood and found a contrast in Israel’s king David. David had children: Tamar, Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah and Solomon. As king, David had many responsibilities to fulfill but one he neglected was his role as father to his own children.
At the death of his mid-directed son Absalom, David cried out in agony, “Absalom, my son, my son.” David’s concern was heartfelt, but too late (Muilenburg, 3).
He had sons, but he never was a father.
A good friend of mine is a modern day David who has a significant job with a prestigious organization in town. He could make more money by working longer hours. But there are three people that make him do otherwise: his wife and daughter and son. This David has caught a vision of parenting that the ancient David never saw. He has a notion of the merciful father that makes him play an important role in the life of his family.
Growing numbers of cultural voices call for an active father in every family. Edward Stein in Fathering: Fact or Fable? asserts. “Psychological fathering . . . is what the world is in need of more than ever in its history. There is a considerable body of scholarly evidence that civilization will stand or fall with whether such fathering is available in sufficient quantity” (Stein, 11).
Be an active father.
3—Be a nurturing father. God was. Even when God’s people alienated themselves from him, he sought to treat them with compassion and mercy. Jesus appealed to his Father in those times when he needed care and concern.
Children need fathers so badly that Harvard psychiatrist James Herzog calls it “father hunger” (Herzog, 163-74). Psychologists have recently decided that a nurturing father helps in three crucial ways: enabling the baby to become independent of the mother, helping the child to learn control, and aiding in positive gender development (Miller, 112-13).
Even feminists have called for the nurturing father. Dorothy Dinnerstein’s, The Mermaid and the Minotaur laments the way in which mothers have been left to nurture the family and calls for an active male role in parenting ( Dinnerstein, 4-5, 208).
One father told about a time when his son didn’t want him to kiss him goodnight. The father wasn’t sure what to do, so he didn’t press the issue. Later he told his boy, “I’ve been thinking about you not wanting me to kiss you goodnight. I’m willing to go along with that, but I need a substitute action. Is there some way I can tell you that I love you? Would it be acceptable if I squeeze your shoulder?” The boy said okay.
From then on the father didn’t kiss him goodnight, but he always squeezed his shoulder. That went on for years. Then one night the father left the boy’s room without the usual gesture of affection. The boy asked, “What’s wrong, Dad?” The father responded, “What do you mean?” His son said, “You know, you didn’t grab my shoulder the way you always do.”
The father had learned to nurture his son and it made a difference to the boy.
Be a nurturing father.
Rebuilding a Culture
The voice of Scripture must be allowed to rebuild the image of father. Those of us with wounded images of fathering must recast the notion of father into a form that says love and compassion. We must be fathers who are there, who are active and who nurture our youth.
However imperfect our image of a father might have been, the Father offers a perfect image of what a father should be. In that formula is the way to healing.
Newsweek recently ran a story on fathering. One father told the reporter that when he takes care of his kids on weekends, his friend sometimes say, “Oh you’re babysitting.”
“No, I’m not,” he replies. “I’m being their father” (Jones, 6).
The wound has been healed!
Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minataur (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977).
Haddad, Williams and Mel Roman, The Disposable Parent (New York: Penguin Books, 1979).
Herzog, James. “On Father Hunger,” in Father and Child: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives, ed. by Stanley Cath, et al, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982) 163-74.
Jones, Timothy. “The Daddy Track, “ Christianity Today 33 (June 16, 1989) 6.
Mead, Margaret. “A Cultural Anthropologist’s Approach to Maternal Deprivation,” in Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects (Geneva: WHO, 1962).
Miller, John W. Biblical Faith and Fathering—Why We Call God “Father” (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1989).
Muilenburg, James. “A Meditation on Divine Fatherhood,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 6 no 1 (1950) 3-5.
Osherson, Samuel. Finding Our Fathers—The Unfinished Business of Manhood (New York: Free Press, 1986).
Parke, Ross D. Fathers (Cambridge: Harvard, 1981).
Rainer, Kenyon. First Do No Harm (New York: Random House, 1987).
Ruether, Rosemary. New Woman-New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (New York: Crossraoad, 1975).
Stein, Edward V. Fathering: Fact or Fable? (Nashville; Abingdon, 1977).
Terrien, Samuel. Till the Heart Sings—Biblical Theology of Manhood and Womanhood (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).